Journey to Mars (2030): Lessons from the Mayflower’s Voyage (1620)

I just took a 15 hour flight to Portugal on Friday. It got me thinking about a voyage to Mars, what would it be like? Could we learn anything from the Europeans who came to America on the Mayflower?

Will it be like climbing aboard a regular ole airplane? Plunking my butt down for not 15 hours but 270+ days? I have lots of questions about what it’s like to go to Mars and to colonize Mars.

The first voyage proves it can be done. It’s ego and structure. There’s a captain and everyone is paid to be there.

Around the second or third voyage it gets more interesting. Those voyages are the start of colonization. “We’re not the first, but we’re here to stay.”

My questions are: How long is the voyage to Mars, what is the population like, why do people go, what are the facilities, what issues pop up, and how do people pass the time?

Flying to Lisbon, Portugal got me thinking about Christopher Columbus, who lived in Lisbon for a decade. From the European perspective, Christopher Columbus was kind of like the “first voyager” to Mars. And a century later, the Mayflower was the first to send colonists over from Europe. (Even though they thought they were sailing to Asia!)

So I thought I’d answer these questions by writing what happened on the Mayflower, and then asking what might happen on a Mars ship.

Who makes decisions?
On the Mayflower: The captain was in charge. The crew carried out his orders. The passengers were along for the ride. If there was a problem, it was the captain’s job to solve it. It was their job to protect the ship, the cargo, the crew, and the passengers (probably in that order, since the captain owned 1/4th of the ship).

To Mars: Have there been 15 month experiments in isolated governance? I can imagine something like this aboard a submarine, though as a military vessel everyone is crew. Or perhaps some lessons from temporary societies like Burning Man are relevant? Love to hear your thoughts on this.

How long is the voyage?
Mayflower: 2 months (60 days)
Mars: 9 months (260 days)

Side note: colonization might take awhile after the first voyage. Columbus hits America – 1462; Mayflower hits America 142 years later – 1620

What’s the population like?
Mayflower: 130 people, 100 passengers and 30 crews. A lot of these were families or single men. The captain and crew ran the ship and in case of emergency, for example once when the mast broke, the passengers helped out to fix it.

To Mars: I imagine passengers are going to need to be handy. I think there’s going to be people who are smart and able to help in tough spots. Maybe it will all be crew, but given the idea of colonization you don’t need massive crews, there can be a lot of people who hang out, artists, poets, photographers.

Why do people go?
Mayflower: The main reasons behind the Mayflower were Religious persecution or to make money/needed to make money as endentured servants. “I’m going to this new area farm, make money, grow crops that are profitable.”

Mars: What people would consider themselves so persecuted that they need to go to another planet? I’d be curious to hear about any of those groups on Earth right now. There are a lot of views that aren’t accepted on Earth. Might be very attractive to someone who wants to leave and start something new.

The flip side is servants. Is it more like a job? Are Mars colonists kind of like Deadliest Catch where I can clear $1,000,000 a year as a salary to send back to Earth? There are a lot of people who find that worth considering.

What else is on the ship?
Mayflower: Cargo, tools, food, no latrine, people fend for themselves.

Mars ship: I imagine it kind of like a plane. No guns (no such thing as space pirates, yet, but seems like an obvious emergent property when you have vulnerable ships floating about). Cargo, lots of food. (The Mayflower got caught without enough food and that was hard.)

What are unexpected emergencies while on board?
Mayflower: The biggest killer was disease. In the first winter the Mayflower got hit hard. Killed half of the crew and half of the passengers, 50 passengers and 15 crew.

Another issue is when the mast broke and the passengers had to pitch in to help repair the ship.

Mars ship: Disease and food aren’t well understood, and they can wreak havoc. Think about where bioengineering is relative to mechanical engineering or agriculture. We need fundamental biotech advances to get to where we need to be.

A lot of people get sick when they’re on a plane for awhile, the dry air, the recirculating particles of gunk. Maybe this has been studied aboard submarines, so there are solutions.

Food is important. Things get really hard when you don’t have any food (luckily AirFrance kept me well fed). I hope the Mars ship has excess food.

What do people do to pass the time?
Mayflower: Reading, playing cards, cooking their own food

Mars: Mayflower sounds familiar. I’d read, play cards, watch Twitch, chat with my buddies, make my own food or buy it at the ship’s food court, work from my laptop (with a delay in my internet connection up to 4 minutes)

I think this is an interesting framework for thinking about what going to Mars might be like and what if it were like the Mayflower. Similar to ocean travel in the age of the Mayflower, space travel is a technology we understand, but not perfectly, in terms of ship building, ship captaining. Some are crew, some are passengers. A big journey requires a big commitment. Religious persecution or making money. People end up doing pretty ordinary things like reading playing cards.

I found this fun to think through. Thanks for reading!

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